Religious Liberty Win: Religious Hospitals Dodge ERISA Bullet at Supreme Court | American Center for Law and Justice
  Search  |  Login  |  Register

ACLJ Profile Completion

Verified

Religious Liberty Win at Supreme Court

By Walter M. Weber1496847588500

Even very technical legal issues sometimes can have important implications for the protection of religious freedom for all in the United States. That was the case in a recent Supreme Court ruling over retirement plans.

Religiously affiliated hospital systems won a reprieve from multi-billion dollar liability in a Supreme Court decision issued earlier this week. In Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed three lower court decisions that allegedly put such hospitals on the hook for over $60 billion in claims. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) had filed as friend of the court in support of the hospital systems

The case mainly focused upon dry questions of statutory interpretation under an even drier federal statute, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Basically, this statute requires affected plans to maintain certain financial reserves in employee retirement plans, follow specified vesting requirements, and provide various disclosures to employees. ERISA consequently imposes very significant costs on employers. But ERISA does not apply to all employers. The statute expressly exempts all government employers, plus a variety of international organizations. And, at issue in this case, ERISA exempts "church plans" from its requirements.

Why does all of this matter to the ACLJ, a religious liberty organization? Well, for one thing, the viability of religiously affiliated hospitals was in question. A wave of lawsuits charged that these hospitals were not exempt "church plans", were thus violating ERISA, and therefore needed to cough up tens of billions of dollars to come into compliance. But what really got our attention was the anti-religious liberty arguments certain groups had been making in the lower courts (and which, it turns out, would be repeated in the Supreme Court).

These groups, specifically the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the ACLU, contended that an exception for church plans would be unconstitutional in violation of the Establishment Clause. In other words, these groups asserted, an exception for churches and religious organizations or individuals is subject to attack as "favoring religion".

But exceptions are frequently put into laws to recognize both freedom of conscience (as with military draft exemptions for religious pacifists or conscience exemptions for abortion), the autonomy of churches (as with exceptions allowing religious ministries to hire according to their principles of faith and morals, e.g., letting synagogues insist that the rabbi be Jewish, or letting a diocese insist that a Catholic hospital chaplain oppose euthanasia), and the social value of churches (as with tax exemptions for houses of worship). As we stated in our amicus brief:

The religious protection embodied in the First Amendment leaves ample room for exemptions that accommodate religious persons, practices, and institutions beyond the bare minimum which the Free Exercise Clause requires. Offering a buffer of protection to religion in this way is not unconstitutional favoritism. Rather, it is the American way.

Yet FFRF and the ACLU were challenging that tradition of protecting religion. We had to respond. As we explained in our brief, the ERISA exception fell comfortably within the national norm of safeguarding religious practice:

“‘Neutrality’ in matters of religion is not inconsistent with ‘benevolence’ by way of exemptions from onerous duties,” Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 454 (1971). The ERISA church plan exemption spares religious employers from massive financial and other burdens, falling squarely within [this] statement. . . . [Moreover,] this Court has again and again upheld various exemptions that protect – or “benefit,” in FFRF’s loaded phrasing – religious entities: tax exemptions . . . ; exemptions from employment discrimination laws . . . ; and [enhanced protection against] substantial burdens on religious exercise . . . .

This was especially true given the fact that ERISA already excluded government employees from its reach. As we noted:

[T]he burden on employees of church plan employers is no different than that faced by the millions of government employees whose employers are also exempt under ERISA. ERISA contains an exception for “a governmental plan,” . . . the definition of which includes plans covering federal, state, and local government employees. . . . It is hard to see how a burden on all these employees could be perfectly acceptable as a policy matter, yet somehow become a constitutional crisis when applied to religious healthcare.

In the end, the Supreme Court did not even give the time of day to the FFRF/ACLU contentions. In an opinion for a unanimous Court, Justice Elena Kagan ruled that the religious hospitals "have the better of the argument" over whether ERISA's "church plan" exemption applied to entities that are religiously affiliated. That decision reversed three lower court rulings that had gone against the hospital systems. And the Court did not suggest that it saw even the slightest problem with the notion of an exception for church plans in the first place – which is a very good thing and a significant victory for religious freedom.

Buddhist Indoctrination Update: Exposing the Intent

By Abigail A. Southerland1550073750130

We recently made you aware of the widespread trend sweeping the nation wherein public schools incorporate Buddhist-based mindfulness practices into the everyday curriculum of elementary school age children. We’ve been contacted by parents of elementary, middle, and high school students from over a...

read more

Discrimination Against Churches Headed to Supreme Court

By Laura Hernandez1549467673007

For years the ACLJ has defended religious organizations against discrimination. That includes churches and Christian schools. The Tree of Life Christian School has been forbidden by the local government from developing a building and property it acquired for a new school in order to consolidate its...

read more

ACLJ Sends FOIA on Buddhist Indoctrination in Schools

By Benjamin P. Sisney1548948730892

Last month, we told you about a disturbing development: Young elementary school students are being forced to participate in Buddhist-based meditation in public schools. Then, we learned that federal government grant funds have been awarded to implement these so-called mindfulness programs on...

read more

Law Discriminates Against Churches?

By Abigail A. Southerland1547478000000

The ACLJ currently represents two churches in Gaffney, South Carolina that have been prevented from occupying new properties and holding worship services due to an illegal and discriminatory provision in the City zoning ordinance. The provision specifically excludes religious organizations from...

read more